Americans United for Separation of Church and State today asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate two churches for possible violations of the federal tax law's ban on church politicking.
Americans United asserted that the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., and the Greater Grace Temple of the Apostolic Faith in Detroit, Mich., engaged in partisan politicking during yesterday's church services by encouraging support for Democratic candidates.
"Federal tax law clearly prohibits church intervention in a political campaign, but that appears to be exactly what these churches did," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "The election may be just days away, but houses of worship have no business trying to help rally support for specific candidates."
The Alfred Street Baptist Church appeared to cross the line by hosting a partisan speech delivered by President Bill Clinton on behalf of Vice President Al Gore and Virginia Sen. Chuck Robb.
"When I'm gone, I hope that Chuck Robb will be left behind," Clinton said from the church's pulpit. He added, "I never saw anybody take more chances to stick up for little people and lost causes."
While at the church's pulpit, Clinton also voiced his support for Gore. "I shouldn't have to tell you who to vote for -- you already know who I'm for," Clinton said. "This is not rocket science."
As AU's Lynn said in his complaint to the IRS, "While efforts aimed at increasing voter turnout would not present a problem, this event appears to have been a campaign rally held during a church worship service that was designed to benefit certain candidates. It also seems likely that a significant degree of coordination between the church, the Robb campaign, the Gore campaign and the White House would have been necessary to plan the event. I believe this amounts to a church endorsement of the Robb and Gore campaigns."
Americans United also reported today the political activities of the Greater Grace Temple of the Apostolic Faith in Detroit. Immediately before Gore was given an opportunity to deliver a campaign speech from the church's pulpit, Bishop Charles H. Ellis III, pastor of the congregation, offered a partisan introduction of the Democratic presidential candidate.
"We have seen in this state what Republican dominance and control will do," Ellis said. The election, he added, was therefore a "no-brainer. If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Ellis also chastised former President George Bush for naming Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Thomas, Ellis said, has "done more damage to the cause of African Americans than all the justices that have come before him." Noting it was Gov. George W. Bush's father who nominated Thomas, Ellis concluded, "The branch does not fall far from the tree."
Following Gore's remarks, Ellis presented the Democratic nominee with a jacket embroidered with the phrase, "President Al Gore."
Section 501(c)(3) of federal tax law prohibits tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from intervening in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for public office.
The IRS has a "zero tolerance" policy for violations. In 1995 the federal agency revoked the tax exemption of the Church at Pierce Creek in upstate New York after the church paid for newspaper advertisements against presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1992. The IRS investigation was sparked by a formal complaint filed by Americans United.
"Churches should never be turned into cogs in a partisan political machine," said AU's Lynn. "Whether it's Democratic candidates in inner-city churches or Christian Coalition voter guides in fundamentalist churches, federal tax law prohibits this kind of politicking to protect churches' integrity and the democratic process. The law, therefore, must be followed."
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.